Human Nature

I work at Imagine Institute Paris, an institute that is trying to bring clinicians and scientists under one roof to treat patients with rare genetic disorders.

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Nov 20, 2019
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So our building is divided into sections, on the ground and first floor- patients meet the clinicians and from the second floor to the 5th floor, is where the scientists work. The building has a hollow structure and a grand hall on the ground floor. As a result, we see the patients and they see us working, actually walking in the corridors. Sadly, at times, you can hear children crying or screaming.   

This is the picture that kept flashing in my mind after reading the acclaimed book- “A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. This book made me rethink my opinions about gene therapy. Is CRISPR the tool, we have all been waiting for? Are we at the point of rewriting our genome?

The book came out in 2016 and a reprint was published in 2017. Highly recommended by Siddartha Mukherjee, George Church, Venki Ramakrishnan and others. As a person who previously worked in a synbio lab, I was tempted by the commotion and fascination around the subject. So I picked up this book, both out of curiosity and peer-pressure. I wanted to know how and where it all started! 

The coveted CRISPR technology, a prokaryotic adaptive immune system against invading  invading phages, plasmids, etc. that changed how we deleted or changed genomes. No one needs an introduction to this subject. Protection is mediated by scanning at a library of DNA spacers. If the Cas-proteins find a match, they then destroy the invading DNA material. 

If you are trying to understand the basics of CRISPR, I would recommend you to watch some online videos. Jennifer Doudna, herself has been featured on iBiology videos that are good and easy to assimilate. 

Back to the book, Dr. Doudna talks about her journey, the discovery, her interactions with scientists from different parts of the world. The utility of a protein that can modify any known DNA sample with a bit of tweaking. The book takes you through her transition from a pure biochemist to the champion of human genome modification. 

It made me wonder what it would feel when someone stumbles upon a discovery and the joy of unraveling the mysteries of nature.    

This book opened my eyes to genetic engineering. Even though, I am a researcher I have always been sceptical about the introduction of genetically-modified strains in “natural conditions”. Over time, GMOs have been given a bad reputation. Be it lack of knowledge or lack of acceptance, GMOs are supposedly harmful. The authors evoked the idea of creating bridges between the scientific community and the general public. 

I truly believe that this gap needs to be filled in. Public engagement should be on the agenda of every institute. Be it promotional videos, cartoon animations, your thesis in 180 seconds and other platforms that could reduce the gap between the scientific and the real world.    

Talking about raising awareness, I was one of the lucky ones in France to have the chance to watch the film Human Nature at the Paris Science Film Festival. A brilliant film that touches your heart and gives you hope for the future. 

If you are lazy, this is your chance to understand everything about CRISPR and its utility within a span of 2 hours. Don’t miss it!  Also take all your friends to watch this film. P.S: I don’t want to be mean, but it could have been a tad bit shorter.

A visual delight, I watched Jennifer’s book unfold in front of me. They have super cool animations- the Cas-protein with the sgRNA tries to find its perfect match. Like the book, the movie also questions the dangers of gene therapy. Who decides the limits? What about bringing a mammoth back? Jennifer seeing Hilter in her dream. Misuse of genetic editing! Do we love playing god? The lack of right answers to this conundrum.

The part that stayed with me was the story of a small boy suffering from Sickle cell anemia. A reminder of all the children I see everyday. Their parents’ anxiety, hope, sadness, joy and sometimes despair to help their children. Can we really change all of that?    

 

 

Go to the profile of Gayetri Ramachandran

Gayetri Ramachandran

Postdoctoral Researcher, Institut Imagine

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